Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity
22nd Oct 2017
Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity Year A
“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars, and to God the things that are God's’”.
This morning’s message rests on the toss of a coin and concerns Jesus’ identity. The whole focus now turns to Jesus Himself and who He is, and importantly where his political and religious allegiances lie. Jesus is answering a trick question put to him by the Pharisees, the religious elite. They question him about his allegiance to God and Caesar, to the the call of God over blind allegiance to the powers that be.
The Jews had to pay their taxes to the Roman authority with a special coin with the hated head of Caesar on it. Hated by the ordinary citizen because his empire necessitated a permanent state of high taxation, even among the poor. Hated because the Emperor had set himself up not only as Head of State but also as Divine. Hated because his was the occupying ‘foreign’ power. The Jews were allowed their customs and religion but under strict orders not to cause trouble. The allegiance the Empire called for was a total one – mind, body and even soul. This of course, reminded the Jews that theirs was a Roman occupied territory with a puppet King, Herod. To speak against the Emperor was a capital crime punished by death. In our passage, the Pharisees consider Jesus as something of a contradiction, suspect both as an orthodox Jew and as a political subversive. They set a trap for Him, thinking he must either declare himself as an anti-imperialist and so be arrested by the Romans, or declare himself subservient to Rome and so offend his fellow religious Jews.
The key to this passage lies not just with Jesus’ political or social allegiance, but points to the unique authority which God discloses in the lives of the people. This is best understood in what St Paul terms ‘conviction’, or for us, ‘Christian conviction’. Such conviction emerges out of lives which, among the competing claims of conscience, consider the authority of God in Jesus Christ as primary, and as possessing a primary voice for the greater advancement of the world we inhabit.
In answering the question about God and Caesar indirectly (giving both their right due) Jesus makes plain that the Word of God does not possess special privileges but will be heard among all the other voices, and especially among what Paul was to call ‘the principalities and powers and rulers of this present darkness’. God’s is a unique and particular kind of authority, one which is both John the Baptist’s ‘voice crying in the wilderness’, and also the Word which is possessed of Godly dignity and Godly integrity:
The word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Hebrews 4.12
The effect of God’s Word may be as “…a stone being rolled from the mind” and its power for good will be manifest (RS Thomas).
An example in our recent history of this great good lies in the thinking behind the establishment of our Welfare State and The National Health Service on 5th July 1948. The Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, offers these words from Archbishop WilliamTemple on the passing of the acts for the establishment of the welfare state in 1948:
“This is a once in a lifetime expression of a Christian ethic embodied in an act of parliament”
Temple and the author of the Report on the Welfare State, William Beveridge spoke of the sound establishment and the solid expression of ‘social insurance’ in the life of the nation and the relief from sickness and penury. The coming of the NHS, in the light of the devastation of war, was a significant, timely and miraculous thing. It lives with us, in its present form, still sanding brightly as an expression of the willingness to meet the ordinary citizen at their point of greatest vulnerability and need.. ‘A Christian ethic embodied in an act of parliament’. And all this because in the thick of war there existed among influential minds a truly Godly vision for a dynamic and socially just peace.
When such things happen they stand alone, as great political landmarks. Another act of genius, this time initiated by the Americans, took place only a month earlier as The Foreign Assistance Act was passed by the US House of Representatives on 3rd June 1948. The Marshall Plan pulled the rug under Stalin’s grab for Empire in Europe by equipping the western European countries for recovery and stability. It came to be known as “The most unselfish and unsordid financial transaction in history” and allowed peace with freedom to break out after years of violent bloodshed and devastation.
In our own time, things are somewhat different. We now have to consider, especially in King’s Cross, what is the Christian response to the great gaps left in state provision for the poor and needy. Our upcoming Vision Day will not only involve us in envisioning our future life here at Holy Cross and how we can continue the tradition of this church’s active commitment to working alongside the poor, not as neat piece of social work, but as a work of solidarity and trust with those who come to a Church building and find personal and human responses in lives which have been devastated and marred and made fearful or lost. The Drop In has not had its day, and there will still be a need to giveone to one care for those in dire need and so render to God the things which are God’s. The State run social welfare system must, more than ever, be augmented by the voluntary sector and groups of people such as churches, actively committed to compassionate and involved social care. We will not let go of this need to continue the Holy Cross tradition of strong Catholicism driving a purposeful social Gospel.
Jesus had to answer the trick question of the Pharisees, and his response to serve both God and Caesar is the call to serve God in his world just as it is.
“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars, and to God the things that are Gods’”.
‘Rendering’ requires that the ‘things of God’ are not left unheeded, but, by our actions and decisions and active compassion, and in a world of dizzying and demanding challenges, they are continually being made evident.